Tuesday, March 31, 2009


A tender, buttery crust combined with just the right amount of fruit, custard or chocolate is beautiful to look at. But most tarts sold in bakeries and delis let you down when it comes to taste.

The pastry can be hard or stale, the cream stiff and overly sweet, the fruit doused in a syrupy glaze. So I recently began learning how to make tarts at home in the hopes of having a dessert just the way I like it.It's not as hard as one may think, but it does require a little understanding of the process, specifically how to make the shell.

Here's what I learned both at a cooking class and through trial and (tasty) error.

Keep it cold.

When mixing the dough, the most important thing is to keep everything cold. This prevents the fat (usually butter) from melting into the flour. In the oven, the bits of fat trapped between layers of flour and water will melt, and the moisture will expand into steam, evaporate, and leave behind tiny air pockets, making a tender flaky crust.

After mixing the flour with the other dry ingredients, blend the cold (but not frozen) pieces of butter into the flour. This can be done by hand with the tips of your fingers or a pastry cutter, or with a machine such as a food processor or stand mixer. The food processor is the quickest and easiest way, but I've had luck with the other methods as well.

Many people even place all of their equipment in the freezer for 15 minutes before starting to help keep things cold while working.

What you're striving for at this stage is a texture that resembles coarse sand. The French call this process "sablage," or sanding.

Keep it quick

Work the dough as little as possible.

When flour and water are mixed to make a dough, the proteins in the flour begin to form strands of gluten that strengthen the dough. The more you mix it, the stronger it gets. This is great for bread, but not for pastry, which should be more fragile and crumbly after it's baked.

So when adding water, make sure it is ice cold and do so 1/2 to 1 tablespoon at a time, just until the dough holds together.

I prefer to do this step by hand rather than in the food processor, because it gives more control and prevents the dough from getting overworked.

Take a break

After you've formed your dough into a disc, wrap it in plastic and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This accomplishes two important things: First, it allows the gluten in the dough to relax, so it won't spring back when you try to roll it; and second, chilling the dough keeps the butter from melting and makes it easier to roll without sticking to the counter and the rolling pin.

You'll also want to take a second break after the dough is rolled out and in the tart pan.

Cover it with plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for at least another 30 minutes. This is a critical step and must not be skipped.

If you are blind baking your tart shell -- that is, baking it empty before filling--skipping this step will result in a tough crust that will shrink, possibly so much that your filling won't even fit in it.

Other tips

When rolling out the dough, use a forward-backward motion with the rolling pin to create an oval. Sprinkle the counter and the top of the dough with a bit of flour, turn the dough 90 degrees and continue that process until you have a circle. But always turn the dough, not the rolling pin. The repeated lifting and turning, with sprinkles of flour when needed, will ensure that it doesn't stick to the counter.

Use a tart pan with a removable bottom. Some recipes call for oiling or buttering the tart pan. I find this unnecessary because there is enough butter in the dough to keep it from sticking to the pan. For this reason, I also don't buy the expensive nonstick tart pans.

Practice makes perfect

Aaron Jackson, Associated PressWednesday, February 6, 2008